Bad Timing

R.W. Johnson

  • Eden: The Life and Times of Anthony Eden, First Earl of Avon 1897-1977 by D.R. Thorpe
    Chatto, 758 pp, £25.00, March 2003, ISBN 0 7011 6744 0
  • The Macmillan Diaries: The Cabinet Years 1950-57 edited by Peter Catterall
    Macmillan, 676 pp, £25.00, April 2003, ISBN 0 333 71167 X

Harold Macmillan’s judgment on Anthony Eden, that ‘he was trained to win the Derby in 1938; unfortunately, he was not let out of the starting stalls until 1955,’ was echoed by Anthony Nutting: ‘he had for too long been the Golden Boy of the Tory Party, the glamorous Crown Prince awaiting the summons to mount the throne in place of the ageing Emperor.’ Indeed, a survey of historians shows that Eden’s short premiership was enough to earn him the title of ‘worst prime minister of the 20th century’. One of the merits of D.R. Thorpe’s new biography is that it enables one to sympathise with Eden’s own verdict (after Horace Walpole): ‘Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.’ Eden was a man only too able to feel, trying hard to be someone who only thinks.

The tragedy was the greater because not only did he display virtually flawless judgment throughout the 1930s (he resigned from the Chamberlain Government in 1938 on anti-appeasement grounds, then warned Chamberlain against the danger of a possible Nazi-Soviet pact, something almost no one else foresaw); he was also a man of courage and conscience, with a range of intellectual gifts and a degree of cultivation unmatched by any other 20th-century premier. He won the Military Cross in 1916 for risking his life by carrying his wounded sergeant, Bert Harrop, over fifty yards of no man’s land. They remained friends for life – the gold penknife Harrop gave him stayed on Eden’s desk until he died. In 1935, Eden and Hitler discovered at a dinner that they had served in trenches opposite one another and happily sketched out their respective positions on the back of a dinner card; Eden’s French counterpart felt a deal of trouble could have been saved if only Eden had managed to shoot Hitler there and then.

The friendship with Bert Harrop was not an aberration: it is clear from Eden’s diaries that he liked working-class people. Hereditary aristocrat though he was, he preached the breakdown of ‘our outdated class system’, which, he felt, did not do enough for the education of ‘poor people’s children’. After his resignation in 1938 he set off – as few other Tories would have done – on a protracted tour of depressed industrial areas in Tyneside, Glasgow and Wales, which he found ‘absorbingly interesting’. He seems to have considered himself a Tory by birth, but during the war he told Churchill that he ‘felt no desire to work with the Tory Party as now constituted after the war and unless we could repeople it, I saw little future for it’. He then went off to spend an evening with trade unionists: ‘It is no doubt unfortunate for a Tory MP but I am infinitely happier among these folk than in the Carlton Club, and they like me better than does the C.C. I am in the wrong party it seems.’ As the 1945 election approached, he began to hope that the Tories – now ‘discredited’ – would lose.

Eden’s aestheticism also made him a somewhat unlikely figure on the Tory benches. An early and passionate admirer of Cézanne, Braque and Picasso, he was a very knowledgable collector and took few duties more seriously than his trusteeship of the National Gallery. He was equally passionate about literature, and could quote Shakespeare at enormous length. He was an enlightened president and governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre over many years and supported both Peter Hall and Peter Brook at a time when their avant-garde work frequently brought storms of criticism. He had a voracious appetite for both English and French literature and liked to hunt down French novels on the Left Bank. In most un-Tory fashion, he formed an immediate and strong attachment to the French Socialist leader of the Popular Front, Léon Blum, who, to Eden’s delight, allowed him to browse in and borrow from his own large private library. It is doubtful if any other Tory MP snatched the time to read and reread Proust, Balzac, Maupassant, Zola and Stendhal, while at the same time reading a good deal of Arabic and Persian literature – in the original. Eden was able to converse in good German with Hitler and in excellent French with a succession of French leaders, and to cite Arabic proverbs to Nasser.

Thorpe – an inveterate biographer of Tory premiers – was asked to write this book by Eden’s widow, Lady Avon. One consequence is a decided reticence about Eden’s private life. Thorpe continually hints at his difficult temperament but seems not to want to say that Eden inherited his father’s passionate, even hysterical fits of temper. Similarly, we are told that he had endless affairs, but few of his mistresses are named and the larger question of his sexuality is never broached: were all his affairs with women? A boy as pretty as Eden was unlikely to have gone through Eton without homosexual experience, some of it perhaps involuntary. He was certainly unhappy there – ‘highly strung, nervous and unsettled’, as one of his masters put it – and Thorpe alludes to the fact that he stood up for a younger boy suspected of sneaking about ‘moral matters’ – i.e. presumably blowing the gaff about homoerotic relationships. There was certainly more than a whiff of homophobia in the way his political opponents tagged Eden and his followers as ‘glamour boys’, and in the endless references to him as a modern Beau Brummel. Eden displayed a fastidiousness – not just about his appearance – that many found effete. Thus his loathing of Mussolini seems to have been largely a physical repulsion. The dictator’s bullying, his arrogance and, above all, his appalling table manners affected Eden to the point where he could hardly bear to hear Italian spoken. Similarly, an already dicey relationship with John Foster Dulles seems to have been ruined beyond repair by Dulles’s hand-on-arm habits and his halitosis.

There were otherwise unexplained enmities towards Eden throughout his career which were surely based on the belief that he was gay, but since homosexuality could not even be named by those who disliked it, all we get here are furious remarks by the likes of Randolph Churchill to the effect that Eden was ‘a hysterical self-serving prima donna’. Thorpe is so squeamish that even when he tells us that Eden’s son, Nicholas, died of Aids, he doesn’t explicitly state that he was gay. Yet, annoyingly, his opinions on all manner of other matters and politicians, right down to Thatcher and Blair, are gratuitously strewn throughout his book.

He repeatedly tells us that there has been an upward historical revision in Neville Chamberlain’s reputation, but on the evidence he presents it is difficult to see why this should be so: indeed, one stands freshly appalled at the sheer awfulness of the British political class of the 1930s as one looks at those Eden had to serve with. Lord Reading, the first Foreign Secretary he worked for, saw the post as essentially ‘a retirement’ job and did little. Next came Sir John Simon, not only lazy – he would flee the office if work threatened – but, as Eden noted in his diary, with ‘an utter lack of moral courage’. Then came Sir Samuel Hoare, who, having promised Eden on the eve of a trip to Paris that he wouldn’t commit Laval to anything because ‘it wouldn’t be fair on my way through to my holiday,’ then proceeded, in his eagerness to get on with his hols in Switzerland, to sign the Hoare-Laval Pact, giving Abyssinia away to Mussolini.

When Eden became Foreign Secretary he had to deal with Chamberlain’s irrepressible eagerness to ‘get closer to Germany’. No sooner had Chamberlain appointed him than he tried to get Jim Thomas, Eden’s PPS, to be his spy in the FO, reporting back secretly. Worse, Chamberlain used his bungling, pro-Fascist sister-in-law, Dame Ivy Chamberlain, as his unofficial envoy to Mussolini, repeatedly undercutting Eden. As Attlee put it, Chamberlain was culpably naive and parochial as he faced the dictators, ‘like a wireless permanently tuned to Midland Regional’. He laid great store on his personal relationship with Hitler and Mussolini, oblivious to the contempt in which they held him. ‘People who carry an umbrella,’ Mussolini observed of him, ‘can never found an empire.’ Worst of all, he did all he could to sabotage Eden’s attempts to build an anti-Fascist alliance with the US and, long after he had promised to stop Dame Ivy, happily told his colleagues that she retained all his confidence. When he forced Eden’s resignation both Hitler and Mussolini were delighted. For all his admiration for Chamberlain, Thorpe has at least one clear-eyed moment when he points out that Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was an early proponent of the we-are-all-guilty school, à propos the First World War: such views, he reminds us, were held only by those who hadn’t fought in the war – those who had (like Eden) had no time for them. Lang’s facile fence-sitting, snobbery and hypocrisy round off the picture of an elite of whom it is difficult to think too ill.

The protracted unmanning of Eden in Churchill’s overwhelming shadow is painfully laid bare. The key moment came with Churchill’s visit to America in June 1942 and the King’s insistence that he name his successor in case of mishap. Churchill duly handed the King a letter in which he advised that Eden be Premier in his place. Churchill soon came to resent this situation and tried hard the following year to pack Eden off to India as Viceroy – hardly a favour: Churchill loathed India – but both the King and Eden put their foot down. Eden continued to be run ragged by Churchill’s anarchic manner of administering the war, however. ‘What Winston needed was a strong-minded woman secretary to say every now and then “Don’t be a bloody fool,”’ Attlee later wrote to him, adding: ‘We performed that useful function.’ They were the only two who could, but it was a wearing role. With the war over and Labour in power, things got worse: Churchill insisted on remaining Party leader but in fact devoted himself to book-writing, speech-making and foreign tours. Eden was left to do the dirty work as de facto Opposition leader. As one friend noted in 1948, ‘waiting to step into a dead man’s shoes is always a tiring business, but when the “dead” man persists in remaining alive it is worse than ever.’

Even after the Tory victory of 1951, Churchill found one reason after another for hanging on. Cabinet meetings were a bear garden, occasions for protracted Churchillian rambling with no policy co-ordination. Worse, he began to cultivate a sort of deliberate obscurantism. When Selwyn Lloyd was appointed Eden’s junior at the FO, Lloyd objected that ‘I’ve never been to any foreign country, I don’t speak any foreign languages, I don’t like foreigners,’ to which Churchill replied: ‘Young man, these all seem to me to be positive advantages.’ When Eden was dealing with the Indo-China crisis in Geneva, holding the French by one hand while holding off the hawkish Dulles with the other (‘The trouble with you, Foster,’ Eden told him, ‘is that you want to start World War Three’), Churchill could only make such contributions as ‘I’ve lived 78 years without hearing of bloody places like Cambodia.’ Worse still, he began to take a mischievous delight in frustrating Eden’s chances of the succession. When Lloyd’s father died, he pointedly commented: ‘Quite young, too, only 90’; and even when he did hand over in 1955, he told Eden that he would be standing for the Commons again, ‘probably as a Conservative’.

Inevitably, the book builds up to the Suez Crisis in 1956 and Eden’s ruin. Thorpe is far too keen to exculpate his hero both for lying so badly over this and for his flat opposition to British membership of the EEC, rather as latter-day Gaitskellites are inclined to perform elaborate contortions to prove that his famous ‘No, no and no again’ speech about Europe somehow meant yes. Thorpe treats us to all manner of sophistical argument to justify lying in politics but never faces up to the central point that a Parliamentary system depends on ministers being responsible to Parliament: if they tell whoppers there then the system collapses.

Britain’s retreat from empire created an atmosphere of national surliness verging on hysteria – only an indignant reassertion of the imperial ‘smack of firm government’ could satisfy it. It wasn’t only the Tories and the Beaverbrook press that wanted this; so did opinion in general, including the popular Left as represented by the Daily Herald and News Chronicle. The mood was so strong that once Eden gave way to it over Cyprus – by arresting Archbishop Makarios, the Cypriot leader, and deporting him to the Seychelles, clearly a stupid and illiberal thing to do to a popular figure – he was going to find it hard to resist. It’s striking that this mood seemed to unhinge so many people.

It started with Eden’s oldest political friends, Lord Salisbury and Jim Thomas, falling out. Salisbury first demanded that the Tories be strengthened in the Lords by making Thomas, then in charge of the Admiralty, into Lord Cilcennin and, as soon as that was done, objecting that such an important posting couldn’t go to a peer of the first creation. Eden accepted this grotesque snobbery, thereby alienating Thomas; but Salisbury, still more inflamed, resigned from the Government in protest at the invitation to Khrushchev and Bulganin to visit Britain.

Then, when news of Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal came through, Eden called a meeting at Number Ten which went on till 4 a.m.; people were pulled out of London clubs to attend, some in dinner jackets, some the worse for wear. It was at this meeting – with foreigners sitting in – that the first fatal steps were taken. The tenor of debate at the time is illustrated by the attitude of Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, Permanent Under-Secretary at the FO and thus supposedly a source of calm and expert advice. Kirkpatrick told one doubter that ‘the PM was the only man in England who wanted the nation to survive; that all the rest of us have lost the will to live; that in two years’ time Nasser will have deprived us of our oil, the sterling area fallen apart, no European defence possible, unemployment and unrest in the UK and our standard of living reduced to that of the Yugoslavians or Egyptians.’ The equally astute foreign affairs brain of Sir Alec Douglas-Home produced similar nonsense: ‘We are finished if the Middle East goes and Russia and India and China rule from Africa to the Pacific.’ Surely only in a post-imperial fantasy could India be imagined ruling in such a condominium ‘from Africa to the Pacific’.

Similarly, Eden seems never to have faced the obvious fact that if the Suez invasion was to succeed it had to topple Nasser. The idea was ‘to bring Nasser to his senses’; he ‘must’, in the language of the headmaster’s study, ‘be called to order’. But again Eden’s language was unbalanced: he inveighed against ‘those Communists at the BBC’ and continued, even after Suez had failed, to claim that ‘if we had not acted, before very long Nasser would have been the ruler of the whole Arab world on Moscow’s behalf.’ Above all, he tried to convince Dulles that although Nasser was not Hitler, ‘the parallel with Mussolini is close.’ Thorpe argues in support of Eden’s action and repeatedly asserts that the world would have been a better place if it had succeeded: he doesn’t even consider the possibility that Nasser was quite right to liken what he had done to the British Government’s nationalisation of the Manchester Ship Canal. It was, after all, a facility in his own country that he was taking over, and he was offering fair compensation. Mussolini, on the other hand, was trying to grab another country, which is why there was really no parallel at all.

Having insisted that, appearances to the contrary, he was not at war with Egypt, Eden then pulled the troops out less than 24 hours after sending them in – and still tried to maintain this was not a defeat. Thereafter, he seems to have got wilder still, suddenly trying to bring Churchill back into the Cabinet at the age of 82, and then, as Britain settled down to a morose winter of Suez-induced petrol rationing, going off to recover his health in the West Indies, not only provoking popular outrage but opening the door to a Cabinet coup. Even after that he continued for years to dream that he might return to politics at the top.

Throughout Thorpe’s account, Macmillan is the evil genius scheming in the wings to displace Eden, first leading the Suez war party, then leading the retreat, and all the while keeping back until the killing moment the fact that the run on reserves meant that sterling could not hold without US support. There is no sign of any of this in Macmillan’s diaries – indeed, he records his horror on taking over as Chancellor at the way his predecessor, Rab Butler, had let things go to the bad. About Eden there are only warm and admiring words, though he is seen as weak under pressure. It is Butler, Macmillan’s inevitable rival for the leadership if Eden failed, who comes off worst, and one of the nicest things in the diaries is the intelligence and determination with which Macmillan prevented Eden from naming Butler as deputy premier.

More striking still is the snappy way Macmillan formed his judgments. His worst surprise on joining the Cabinet was to find that Britain was now

treated by the Americans with a mixture of patronising pity and contempt. They treat us worse than they do any country in Europe . . . Perhaps the mistake we make is to continue to regard them as an Anglo-Saxon people. That blood is very much watered down now; they are a Latin-Slav mixture, with a fair amount of German and Irish.

Over Cyprus: ‘You must shout and get angry with the Turks. They are strong but stupid.’ Of Bulganin: ‘He looks like a Radical-Socialist mayor of a French industrial town. He might be “un bon papa”.’ Of Cecil King (proprietor) and Hugh Cudlipp (editor) of the Daily Mirror: ‘They are as good a pair of ruffians as you could find anywhere.’ Of Averell Harriman: ‘As in England, multi-millionaires have no chance in politics unless they are on the Left.’

He is even more scathing than Eden about Churchill’s hanging on in order to attend summits and win the peace: ‘He is, of course, physically and mentally incapable of a serious negotiation’; only friends could ‘tolerate the endless repetitions and the dreadful waste of time . . . (Although Eisenhower did say to Eden: “I don’t understand how you do any business at all.”)’ He cites approvingly (‘a fair hit’) Bevan’s account of Churchill: ‘the magnificence of his language serves to conceal the mediocrity of his thought.’ Indeed, there could hardly be a better representation of imperial decline than the way Churchill hung on in memory of better days while things went to rack and ruin around him.

Macmillan did, however, understand the situation Britain was in, largely forsaken by America and unable to cling to past greatness. ‘The Government’s position is very bad at present,’ he records in July 1956. ‘In the M East we are still teased by Nasser and Co; the Colonial Empire is breaking up, and many people view with anxiety the attempt to introduce “Party Democracy” in such places as Nigeria and the Gold Coast. Cyprus is a running sore . . .’ This was the real difference with Eden. Robert Murphy, the US Deputy Secretary of State, visited Eden just a fortnight after Macmillan wrote those words. He noted with wonder that Eden ‘was labouring under the impression that a common identity of interests existed among the allies. The Prime Minister had not adjusted his thoughts to the altered world status of Great Britain, and he never did.’

Looking back, one can see that Britain’s continuing retreat from Empire was almost providential. It could easily have been at least as bloody and painful as France’s retreat from Algeria. As it was, Suez was a short, sharp trauma, and within a few years Macmillan had got rid of the rest of the Empire by sleight of hand, prating on about Europe and opening the way to a harmless era of distraction, of Carnaby Street and the Beatles. Thorpe may be right to feel sorry for Eden because he simply found himself ‘on the wrong square of the political chessboard’ at the wrong time, but the whole point about political leadership is to know which square you’re on and to plan accordingly.